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Airbrush eliminates rogues from the annals of sports

Richard Sandomir

Among college football's many rituals, the annual Heisman Trophy presentation remains one of the highlights. Fans and coaches and former stars gather in Manhattan each December to honor the season's outstanding player. This season, about two dozen former winners stood on the stage as another member was added to their exclusive club.

But in avoiding any mention of two controversial winners, the Heisman ceremony was notable for another recent trend: colleges and sports teams that love to celebrate their history have become masters at editing it. Often this is done quietly, with computer keystrokes altering a record book, and not with an angry mob throwing a rope around a statue's neck on the stadium steps.

But sports, perhaps better than any endeavor except politics, has become adept at a type of cleansing more commonly associated with authoritarian governments. With surprising regularity and ease, once-popular figures who have run afoul of the rules or the law have been erased like disgraced leaders from an old Soviet photo album, whitewashed from history to preserve an institution's image or to abide by a governing body's sanctions.

Awards are returned. Banners are pulled down. Names are stripped from buildings. Wins, individual feats, even entire seasons can be eradicated as if they never happened.

Didn't Reggie Bush win the Heisman Trophy? Didn't Lance Armstrong win the Tour de France seven times? Didn't that stadium used to have a statue out front?

"No one says Nixon didn't go to China or sign Title IX into law because he was forced to resign because of Watergate," said Bob Costas, an NBC commentator. "It seems to me you can't strike from the historical record what occurred. The Fab Five played in the NCAA tournament and Reggie Bush was a great and impactful player who won the Heisman Trophy."

Last month's Heisman ceremony, which received heightened scrutiny because the eventual winner, Florida State's freshman quarterback Jameis Winston, was until recently the subject of a rape investigation, was a good primer on how to present a selected history. Bush, whose 2005 trophy was later revoked when he was found to have accepted improper benefits while in college, was never mentioned during ESPN's broadcast.

When comparisons were made between the finalists who are running backs and previous backs who won the Heisman, Bush, who now plays for the Detroit Lions, was never cited. He had become the tailback who must not be named. (The name of another former winner, O.J. Simpson, rarely comes up at the Heisman ceremony anymore, either, though for entirely different reasons.)

Chris Fowler, the host of ESPN's Heisman broadcast, said by telephone that the Heisman Trust had never given him editorial direction. "They've never said one thing to me about the content of the show other than deciding how many finalists there will be," he said.

And William Dockery, the president of the Heisman Trust, said there was no ban on discussing Bush. "Obviously, this situation is not your preference," he said. "It's an unfortunate position that you'd rather not be involved in."

Perhaps it is no surprise then that the official history of the Heisman Trophy omits 2005 as if it did not happen. The honor roll on the trophy's official website moves directly and without explanation from the 2004 winner, USC quarterback Matt Leinart, to Ohio State's Troy Smith in 2006.

But Bush won the '05 award, piling up 2,541 points, the most since Simpson in 1968. By 2010, though, he had been written out of Trojans history, ruled ineligible after the NCAA determined that he and his family had received improper benefits from agents.

Years after Bush left campus for the NFL, the NCAA ordered USC to vacate the 2004 national championship he had helped win and to disassociate itself from him. University officials removed his jersey and his Heisman Trophy, which now sit in a storage unit in New York, from a display of the Trojans' Heisman winners at the campus' Heritage Hall.

"Yes, in some cases it is cumbersome and awkward," Tim Tessalone, the university's sports information director, said by email of the revisionist history. "But it is part of our NCAA penalty."

Sometimes it can be relatively easy to erase a life's work. At Penn State, a 900-pound statue of the university's longtime football coach, Joe Paterno, was taken down by a forklift early one morning in 2012 amid growing criticism of his actions in addressing the sexual-abuse scandal of one of his assistant coaches, Jerry Sandusky. The Big Ten Conference later scratched the name "Paterno" from its Stagg-Paterno football championship trophy for the same reason.

In cycling, Armstrong is a ghost, a nonperson since his confession last year that he had used performance-enhancing drugs. There are no victors listed for the Tours de France he won from 1999 to 2005.

"Armstrong was penalized for things he had done but Paterno for things he didn't do or for things people think he should have done," CostaIn college football, Monday night will bring a new test of that sport's ability to address uncomfortable issues, as two programs that have had recent brushes with scandal, Auburn and Florida State, will meet in the Bowl Championship Series title game in Pasadena, Calif.

In early December, a few days after Florida State's final regular-season game, a state attorney in Florida announced that he did not have enough evidence to pursue a sexual assault charge against Winston. That weekend, Winston helped Florida State clinch a berth in the national championship game. A week later, he won the Heisman.

And three years ago, despite the revelation of a pay-for-play scheme reportedly orchestrated by the father of Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, the NCAA allowed Newton to play in the Southeastern Conference championship game. He, too, went on to win the Heisman, and Auburn went on to beat Oregon for the national championship. Then he was gone but in the most natural way: drafted first overall by the Carolina Panthers in 2011. He will start for them in a playoff game Sunday.

Newton will not be airbrushed from Auburn highlights, but it is a certainty that other players and teams will lose their place in history because of transgressions against the NCAA or society.

"This is what you come to expect as more commonplace than ever and I don't see us ever getting to the point where we ignore that they happened," said Ed Placey, the senior coordinating producer of college football for ESPN. He added, "We have to be careful to explain them as the years go by so that people don't forget the history, or it falls off the radar."


By RICHARD SANDOMIR
The New York Times